Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

Text: Luke 5:4-9

When he finished speaking, he said to Simon, "Push the boat out further to the deep water, and you and your partners let down your nets for a catch." "Master," Simon answered, "we worked hard all night long and caught nothing. But if you say so, I will let down the nets." They let them down and caught such a large number of fish that the nets were about to break. So they motioned to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. They came and filled both boats so full of fish that the boats were about to sink. When Simon Peter saw what had happened, he fell on his knees before Jesus and said, "Go away from me, Lord! I am a sinful man!" He and the others with him were all amazed at the large number of fish they had caught.

The God of surprises

Do you like to be surprised? I guess it depends on what kind of surprise it is. Jesus once returned to his hometown Nazareth and went to worship in the synagogue. He read the scripture reading for the day and then, when he had everyoneís attention he said, "What you have just heard me read has come true today" Ė in other words, "I am the messiah the Old Testament prophets talked about". This knocked the locals for a six. Isnít this Joseph the carpenterís son? Isnít this the lad who went to school with us, who was seen around town with his mother, Mary? In fact, they were not only surprised they were shocked. Their surprise almost led them to murder - they dragged Jesus out of town and would have thrown him over a cliff, if Jesus had not miraculously escaped.

We experience unpleasant surprises when we hear of the sudden death of a person who had been so well, the collapse of a business, or suddenly finding oneself out of work.

On the other hand, we all love good surprises. The unexpected arrival of friends whom we havenít seen for a long time, a surprise birthday party, the announcement of a pregnancy, or a lotto win.

Can you imagine the pleasant surprise the disciples, especially Peter, must have had that day out there on Lake Gennesaret? Peter and his partners had been fishing all night and had caught nothing. Jesus tells Peter, "Push the boat out further to the deep water, and you and your partners let down your nets for a catch". Peter the professional tells the amateur that the fishing was no good. They had been up all night but hadn't caught a thing. Their nets had been washed and put away, they were tired, and besides the best time for fishing was not in broad daylight.

Peter didn't believe for one minute that he would have any more luck than he had before. After all, who was the experienced fisherman here? Peter did this sort of thing for a living, night after night, and he knew when the fishing was bad. Ask any fisherman. There are certain conditions that are just not good for fishing and you can try your hardest but you won't catch a thing. But out of respect for Jesus, he would do as he said.

And what a surprise! It might have been the worst night for fishing, but what a catch. And not just a few sardines, but there were so many fish the nets began to break. And when they finally hauled this catch on board, the catch was so great that the boats began to sink. Can you imagine such a scene? For a fisherman like Peter who knew all about fishing and the skills needed to bring in a good catch, this would have been mind blowing. The toughest, most hardened fisherman would have to be surprised at this kind of catch. All these fish even when the fish weren't biting.

Peter was an expert fisherman and knew what this miracle implied. He fell at Jesusí feet, recognising that he was in the presence of God. And like Isaiah when he saw "the Lord sitting on his throne, high and exalted", Peter has a deep sense of his unworthiness. He exclaims, "Go away from me, Lord! I am a sinful man!"

Now he is hit with a second surprise. Peter, the rough, tough, loud talking, direct speaking, pig-headed fisherman, is the first to be called as one of Jesusí disciples. He had no special training, no qualifications, in fact, he regarded himself as completely unworthy to be even in Jesusí presence. He expected to hear Jesusí anger at being so faithless, but instead he heard the loving words of forgiveness and commission Ė "Don't be afraid; from now on you will be catching people."

Right through the Bible we find that God is a God of surprises. Last week we heard about Jeremiah whom God called to be a messenger to his people. Jeremiah was surprised God was asking such a young lad to confront the wickedness of his society with Godís Word. Who would listen to someone so young and inexperienced?

We know Goliath was surprised when the Israelites sent out a young boy by the name of David. To the surprise of one and all he defeated the giant.

We know how surprised both Mary and Joseph were when Gabriel told them that Mary would soon give birth to a son.
Jesus surprised the local church people by eating with sinners and tax collectors;
He surprised onlookers when he said to the most hopeless sinners, "Your sins are forgiven";
Jesus surprised his disciples with parables about the kingdom of God that emphasised that it is the small and the least in the kingdom who are the greatest;

Then the Bible tells us of the greatest surprise of all. That even though you and I keep on doing things that hurt God and make him sad, even though we are selfish and inconsiderate more times than we care to admit, surprise of all surprises, God keeps on loving us. In fact, he has loved us to the degree that he sent his only Son to die for us. Now that is a surprise. Why should God do so much for us when we have ignored him and his will for our lives? But there you have the surprising love of God at work.

What about the women who went to the tomb on Easter morning, expecting to find the corpse of Jesus? We all know how surprised both they and the disciples were when they heard the news, "He is not here. He has risen!"

Today Luke is telling us that Jesusí disciples, members of the kingdom of God, you and I, should always be ready for Godís surprises. Just as Peter was surprised by the big haul of fish in spite of the seemingly unfavorable conditions, you can bet that the Lord will surprise us with the plans he has for our lives. When we, like Peter, say, "It won't work because I have been there and done that before. There is no rhyme or reason why this should succeed."
Or maybe youíve said something like, "I canít do this Ė Iím too young, or too old, too busy, too inexperienced, too this and that."
But donít be too shocked when God surprises us with what he can do in spite of what we think we can do.

When we listen to what our Lord says to us, believe his promises, obey his Word, even if we do it reluctantly like Peter, and then be ready for the surprises that God works in our lives and in the church.

Take George Frederick Handel as an example. He was dogged with misfortune. He had debt upon debt, despair upon despair. He had a cerebral hemorrhage and was paralyzed on his right side. For four years he could neither walk nor write. The doctors gave up on him. He wrote several operas, but again he fell in debt. At age 60 he thought his life was finished. Then he was challenged by a friend to write a sacred oratorio. He read the Scriptures and decided to work on the Messiah. For 24 days, without eating a crumb, he worked fanatically to produce the Messiah, which many today consider the greatest oratorio ever written.

For Handel, life had taken a turn for the worse. The prospects of something great happening looked grim. Peter had fished all night and caught nothing and was challenged to let down his nets for a catch. Handel, a stroke victim, poor and depressed, was challenged to write music again. It might have seemed a foolish idea but look at the surprise God brought from Handelís pen.

A congregational chairperson once told a Stewardship Committee: it was crazy for a church this size, with its record of giving (or more accurately, a record of not giving) to increase the budget by 18 percent. He told them. The economy's bad. They had trouble making last year's goal, and they wanted an 18 percent increase? Are they kidding? Doesn't this guy sound like Peter? Going on last night's record, throwing out our nets now won't bring in anything different.

What this chairperson wasn't counting on was God and the surprises he has in store for his disciples. By the end of October, this congregation had exceeded its budget requirements by two thousand dollars.

Now I'm sure that you have been caught out by the surprises of God just as I have been, and just as Peter was. And like Peter we fall on our knees and say: Go away from me, Lord! I am a sinful person! Like Peter we realise our own lack of faith, our short sightedness, our failure to trust the God of surprises. Too often we like to have everything cut and dried before we step out. Too often we say,
I canít do it,
Iíve tried that before,
it wonít work,
itís a waste of time and energy.
Forgive us, Lord, as you forgave Peter that day on the fishing boat.

Our God is a God of surprises.
Sometimes Godís surprises will make us feel uncomfortable.
This wasn't what we were expecting at all.
We had things planned out differently.
Or we have tried this before and it didn't work [remember Peter].

Other times God's surprises will make us feel stupid. We feel bad because we hadn't thought of that ourselves or had gone down that road of our own choice. We feel uncomfortable and silly, and even sorry, for not trusting God as we should have.

Godís surprises may excite us as things turn out far better than we had ever dreamed. I can't say in what form Godís surprises will come. Maybe using your gifts in ways you had never imagined before. Maybe giving time to someone or some cause that you had never entered your head until you were challenged. Maybe as congregation seeing new ways of serving the Lord that at first upsets our comfortable place in the church. But whatever the situation that comes up, we ask God to give us the faith, the humility and the boldness to do whatever is necessary to further the work of his kingdom.

As so often happened in the Bible God surprised his people in ways they had never dreamt of. But whatever surprise comes our way he says to us as he said to Peter, "Don't be afraid". Godís surprises are always for our blessing.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
4th February, 2001

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